It is home to thousands of Vancouver’s most vulnerable people; now there is concern residents of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) may be judged by tourists as a company is offering walking tours of the area.
“I think it’s wrong and I don’t think the person doing the tour has any idea about the homeless in the Downtown Eastside or the marginalized in the Downtown Eastside,” Laura Shaver of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users said.
The three and a half hour tours, called “Socially Responsible Vancouver – Tasting Tour,” was the first to come under fire. It costs $275.
According to the company “Tours By Locals,” the tour offers a close up look at how social enterprises work – and how they have a positive impact on the neighbourhood.
It has been running since 2014 when visiting journalists were interested in the DTES. Since then, only journalists have taken the tour and it is not popular.
The company says the tour was never intended to promote voyeurism and if a profit was ever made, it would consider potentially donating some of it back to the DTES.
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A second walking tour offered by the same company runs two hours at a cost of $210.
Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside Private Tour bills itself as a glimpse at a “fascinating but troubled neighbourhood.”
A picture promoting the tour with the caption, “See Vancouver’s Homeless up close,” has since been taken down from the Tours By Locals website.
“Oh I don’t agree with that at all. That is just the worst. They’re making money off of us,” said street vendor Marcel Mousseau.
Mousseau and others who struggle to survive feel the walking tours are exploitative to some degree.
“I think it’s disgusting. It’s very frustrating and it’s rude,” a 17-year DTES resident Rosaleen Phillips said.
Tours By Locals freelance tour guide, Winston Wong, who’s been leading the Downtown Eastside Private Tour since 2009, says it’s not his intention to offend anyone.
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“Nobody wants to necessarily be on display without consent,” Wong said.
But Wong, who grew up in the area, strongly believes the reality of the vibrant community should not be ignored by tourists or locals. Instead, he feels the DTES should be showcased – and educating people is the best possible way.
“In this area, this is more about how some real Vancouverites live and where they do their business and where they hang out on the streets. It’s still worth talking about and still an area we should be proud of, that’s also a valuable part of Vancouver.”
But on the streets of the DTES, finding a balance between educating the public and exploiting the most vulnerable, is a tough sell.